Why You Could, But Might Not Want To, Subsist on Pine Trees

Into the woods (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

“There go the toxins,” says Mark, gleefully pouring the first batch of boiled water out of a pot of pokeweed. That’s a reassuring comment considering pokeweed is a poisonous plant whose litany of effects include severe stomach cramping, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, slow and difficult breathing, weakness, spasms, severe convulsions, and death. Delicious.

The snack of boiled pokeweed is the culmination of a wild foods workshop, where we’ve spent the last five hours learning about the medicinal qualities of dogwood leaves, English plantain, and mullein, among others. Although I have been momentarily tempted to wander through the woods eating leaves and cutting bark from every tree I passed, the lessons, peppered with casual references to plants that will make you convulse for hours if you happen to nibble, makes me think twice. “Oh yeah, you might not want to eat that.”

Dogwood flower (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The high incidence of edible plants having a poisonous look-alike make foraging something you should only do if you’re absolutely certain about the plant you’re about to eat. Mark, our instructor, tells us one story of a woman leading an edible foods workshop who accidentally fed her class a plant that burns human tissue instead of a very similar looking plant that tastes a little like cabbage. Of course, that reassured us for having signed up for the class.

The plant world is an absolutely fascinating and relatively untapped realm – untapped, at least, by American society. Mark showed us countless plants, such as jewel weed, a natural cortisone producer, which are far more potent than their man-made, pill counterparts. Dogwood leaves, for example, will cure a migraine in an hour. A tea made from the leaves of English plantain lowers blood pressure. Mullein, boiled in water and inhaled, relieves allergies. I could go on.

Dogwood blossoms (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Mark brings in the trunk of a youngish pine tree, “sacrificed” (I believe he used the phrase, “and then I talked to the tree” when describing the ritual) for yesterday’s class and now being used for ours.

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I’ll Have the Meal in a Pint, Cheers (a post by Josh)

The myth is true. It is no longer a myth, but a fact, truth, honesty. The myth that I’m talking about is “the closer you get to Dublin, the better the Guinness.” I never made it to the factory itself, which I’m sure was “well worth it” but I did make to the “smallest pub in the world” in the heart of Dublin to enjoy a hearty pint.

It has really been these past few rainy days that have gotten me to thinking about that small pub. Because, during these grayed afternoons, all I’ve pined for is a cozy place to sit with friends and to enjoy a drink. Not coffee, but a pint of Guinness. This may be contradictory to my personality, but hear me out on this one.

By the time I made it Dublin, I had been living out of my backpack for three weeks in the dead of European Winter. I had had an amazing time, but to make it to Dublin – my last city of the trip – and to my dear friend, was so relieving. I had seen a lot, and I’m sure a lot of it will come up in this blog, since my experiences were shaped so heavily by food. But I got to Dublin, saw nothing but clouds and couldn’t get enough.

My friend, Bex, as a good tour guide, tried so hard to show me around, but soon became distracted by her insatiable desire for a good pub lunch. It was 2pm. We had left her apartment at 1pm.

It turned out to be a good plan of action to start looking, since we didn’t end up sitting down until about 3:30pm. First, we had to meet up with her friends who were visiting for the weekend. After some introductions, “Hiya, yeah, this is my mate from the States,” “Yeah, hi. » Continue reading this post…

Nothing is Sacred

Ham croquettes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

As I was packing up to leave home after a relaxing Easter break, I realized there was nothing left in the house to eat.

By nothing, I mean, there was lots of leftover ham.

Hungry, and inspired by an almost hidden recipe in Gourmet, I decided to give in and eat ham again, but this time as miniature ham croquettes. Only a little bit daunted by the recipe’s injunction to “deep fry” the croquettes in a stomach-churning amount of vegetable oil, I dutifully followed the recipe, mashing white rice, ham, parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and egg together into sticky balls and rolling them in bread crumbs. Maybe I didn’t let the rice cool long enough, or maybe my egg just wasn’t enough like cement, but my croquettes looked more like misshapen footballs than the cute, symmetrical spheres in the magazine’s pages. Armed with the longest spoon I could find, I plopped those tentative blobs into the hot oil and hoped they wouldn’t disintegrate too much. And then, as I noticed the thick smoke billowing through the kitchen, I mercilessly abandoned them as I frantically opened all the windows and doors within a fifteen foot radius.

Miraculously, the croquettes were only mostly burnt.

The good deed done, the leftover ham used up, I took my benighted croquettes to the table and took a bite.

Bland. Bland, bland, bland.

Why, you may ask, am I telling you this? Let me tell you.

I am telling you this because it teaches some valuable lessons about cooking. One, that not everything you make will be good. Two, that some things will be bad. And three, that the recipe is never sacred.

Taste copiously while you cook to make sure that it’ll turn out all right, and if it doesn’t taste good, add something new, like horseradish or cumin or caraway seeds. » Continue reading this post…

Holidays Are for Eating

Easter eggs (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Upside-down fennel cake (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

There’s this thing we do in my family which is our way of letting each other know that one of us is in the way of the other. The key to understanding this action is that there are absolutely no words involved. Say, for instance, that I’m standing at the silverware drawer, putting away the knives and forks, and my mother needs a skillet from the cabinet that’s directly behind me. Instead of saying, “Excuse me, could I grab a skillet from the cabinet directly behind you,” she maneuvers me out of the way with her hip, grabs the skillet around the still open silverware drawer, and leaves me wondering what happened as I find myself four feet away from the drawer with a lonely spoon dangling from my fingers.

This is normal.

Imagine that times five hundred. This is Easter.

Holidays at my house revolve around food, which means that holidays at my house happen in the kitchen. This Easter, my four other family members plus Elisabeth, a German TA from Gettysburg College, swept through the kitchen in a psychotic, gyrating mess attempting to make a cohesive dinner appear. I was in charge of the menu–molasses and rum rubbed ham, roasted potatoes with caper butter and breadcrumbs, green beans, caramelized pearl onions and grapes, cheddar biscuits, and the coup-de-grace, fennel and lemon glazed cake (which, of course, my younger brothers wouldn’t eat, citing the cake’s “cabbage” content).

Being in charge of Easter is an interesting change of pace for a former holiday peon. One year, you’re the kitchen multi-tool, you peel potatoes, trim green beans, and of course, put together deviled eggs which are always made and never eaten. The next, you’re telling someone else to wash and cut, boil water, and watch as your mother takes charge of the deviled eggs, while you now make sauces, crumble spices to just the right proportions, and prepare the ham. » Continue reading this post…

Bless Your Good Corn Bread (a post by Josh): Aunt Sarah’s Fudge

It’s funny how, despite my multiple heritages, I claim certain aspects more. For example – I claim my Polish heritage more than anything else. But when asked where I’m from in the States, I say the South nine times out of ten.

It is true, I am from the South. I was born in Virginia and now live in North Carolina. But for my more formative years (ages 4 – 18) I lived in New York. I guess my nomadic lifestyle has allowed me to claim the best of either of the worlds.

Easter is the perfect example of my picking and choosing of my heritages. When it comes to Easter, I think of two things: chocolate and ham. Those years I was a vegetarian, I would think: chocolate and yam. Almost ham, but not quite. It’s a joke, roll with it.

As far as the foods though, I claim Southern pride when it comes to chocolate. My grandma’s fudge is pride-worthy. And with ham, or yams for that matter, I go with my Northern grandma and her honied ham and candied yams.

During my last visit to Gretna, Virginia – the home of my dad’s grandparents – I found my grandma’s secret for her devilish fudge: A cookbook from 1939 entitled: The Southern Cook Book of Fine Old Dixie Recipes (a cook book she’s had since they were married.)

This cookbook is a rare find: wooden panels serve as the cover, red yarn as the bindings and pages that don’t adhere to consecutive numbering (page 46 is followed by the index, the title page preceded by page 8).

In addition to the lyrics from antebellum South that border on racist (“Carry dat load on your head, De Lord will bless your good corn bread,” “I’s got a girl in Afriky, She’s az purty az can be”) and recipes that make 1200 gallons of Burgoo, I found my grandma’s recipe for fudge on page 46 (found at the front of the book). » Continue reading this post…

Rouge Paris (a post by Josh): Red Cabbage with Garlic & Sriracha

Sometimes certain smells rip me back to a particular past. If I smell this one perfume, I’m back in my elementary school, walking through a hallway doorway, on my way to 5th grade graduation. Sometimes, this happens with foods too. If I see a large head of cabbage, cut in half displaying the white and purple labyrinth – I am back in the Marais, waiting in line for my second falafel in two days.

If you’ve never been to Paris before, picture this for me – small streets framed with bright white, red, yellow, green and blue door fronts. Hundreds of people packing them on a Sunday afternoon. A cold chill is in the air, so people hunch a bit, and talk louder than Paris normally permits. Groups are stationed as obstacles for the moving, waiting for Ruggelach, shawarma, or falafel and a warm shelter for ten minutes. This is the Marais, “the swamp,” “the fourth,” or the Jewish section of Paris.

Walking in the Marais my first time, I was overtaken by the boisterousness of the store owners ringing people into their shops in French, Italian and English. After we gave a few of their walking advertisements the cold shoulder, my friend ushered me to the corner falafel shop. It’s the one with the red awning, across the sidewalk from the bakery that has “the best Ruggelach in town” and a block from the main road, taking you off to the Seine.

We went inside to get our four euro falafel, then back into the biting cold to wait for the assembly line. Within five minutes, I was holding the epitome of the Marais’ Cuisine – a warmed pita stuffed with chickpea fritters, cucumber salad, tzatziki sauce, garlic, a tomato-chili salsa, and at the bottom, the warm, red cabbage. » Continue reading this post…

Space vs. Taste: What Makes a Coffee Shop?

Starbucks (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The best cup of coffee I ever had was in a coffee shop on Lygon Street, in Melbourne, Australia. That cappuccino, rich, strong, and smooth, convinced me that Lygon, where the Italian cafés and restaurants were located, would become the perfect place to find a coffee shop in which I could both work and happily feed my caffeine addiction. So I started looking for the perfect place – somewhere with good coffee, tables big enough to hold my laptop and books, outlets, and maybe even an upstairs or back room where people sat and worked in silent solidarity. I wanted a blend of socializing and working, but in Australia, the cafés I found were not work-friendly. Most of the customers were engaged in conversation at the rickety, round tables with the capacity for a coffee cup or two, no one had a laptop (not to mention that there were absolutely no outlets), and the lighting inside was dim.

As the search for the perfect coffee shop on Lygon Street became an increasingly frantic journey, I found myself frequently ending a futile morning of searching at Starbucks. This was particularly frustrating, because not only was the coffee worse than at the cafés along Lygon – where every cappuccino I ordered had a heart drawn into the foam and the espresso was strong but not bitter–but the coffee was exponentially more expensive. Whereas I could get a delicious cup for around $2 anywhere else, at Starbucks I paid close to $6 for the exact same burnt and bitter coffee I could buy back in the States. But Starbucks had what I needed, an expansive upstairs area where students sat and studied, outlets for my laptop, and good lighting.

Oh! the irony of having found the most delicious coffee in the world but not served in the space that I needed. » Continue reading this post…

The Word Buffet Doesn’t Translate (a post by Josh)

What they don’t tell you – when you are boarding the plane to Italy – is that your kitchen may be smaller than your bathroom.

But they do tell you a whole bunch of things that sound amazing, almost too amazing to be real. Like markets every day. No pesticides on the produce. Simple but delicious food. Beautiful people. Ground-breaking art. Breath-taking cities. Cheap travel.

By this point in the schpeal, I started to not believe a word they were saying.

But let me tell you that it’s about 90% true. That other 10% is just for wiggle room. Italy became my haven. Before I left, I tried to prepare myself for some culture shock, writing a mini-recipe for an ideal day in my life:

1. Run
2. Cook something
3. Go to a market
4. Have a good conversation
5. Devour

If I followed these steps, I would have a great day, I thought. And, well, Italy was the perfect “baking dish,” if I’m trying to extend this metaphor. My day in Italy typically consisted of a run, a cappuccino, a walk to the market for fruit, veggies, and cheese, studio time, a nap, a walk to the grocery store in historic Florence, cooking in my makeshift kitchen for two hours and eating for three.

Or we’d go out to eat two times in one night – at 7:30 and 11pm.

The 7:30 meal was my favorite, called the apperitivo. It’s not a meal by most Italian’s standards, rather an entire two hours dedicated to whetting your appetite with drinks and a buffet. This meal is also not your typical tourist meal – no pictures on the menu or English options – but more of a time for locals to hang out. And they happened all over. I found my favorite two cafes that served apperitivos by the end of my time in Florence. » Continue reading this post…